Rotten to the Core
by Aleks Ivanov
Listen to this story here on the Kaidankai podcast.
It will take around nine more minutes to reach the surface at this pace. Nine long minutes until his mandated suicide.
Floor. Wall. Hand.
Thump. Thump. Thud.
Niall caught the ball.
The morning had started with him staring at his left hand, suspended above his face. It was missing the ring finger. It was also the only part of his body that wasn’t pitch black and perpetually on fire. It looked badass, frankly, but the doctor seemed to disagree. The rot has spread too much, you’re a danger to the bunker, why did you return? Are you crazy? Or something along those lines. Niall wasn’t listening, he already knew what followed. The leaders of the cult would initiate the farewell rite and bless his journey to the Underworld. They wanted to get rid of him.
Most people in the bunker were rotten to an extent. A simple visit to the surface would start the rotting process, and there was no known way to stop it. Despite it not being contagious, it was an unwritten rule that you must always cover up the rot. Those who didn’t would bear the stigma of indecency for the rest of their lives. Niall was a scout, a delivery boy he called it. He would take messages and provisions to and from other bunkers. It was a respectable job, and he always brought back souvenirs from the forest, the beach, or the mountains. Many of the bunker dwellers had never seen the surface, and they would shower Niall with gifts in exchange for a seashell or dandelion.
All of that stopped when rumors spread about Niall’s rot. Behind his back, they whispered that he had strayed too far from the gods, that he had committed atrocious sins, and that the gods were punishing him for it. Stupid and narrow-minded people! The surface accelerated the rot, and Niall was out very often doing favors for the dwellers. Ungrateful bastards. His left hand, a few centimeters past the wrist, was now the only part of his body that remained human. The clock was ticking.
Back in the room, Niall glanced over at his belongings. What does one pack for the Underworld? Certainly not garments, the rot’s flames didn’t set things on fire, nor did they hurt, but they emanated enough heat for Niall to be comfortable in cold temperatures. Food wasn’t needed either, the rot had spread to his organs and it kept him fed at all times. All the food he put in his mouth tasted like ash anyway. The rot was unexpectedly helpful. It would have been an objective improvement were it not for the inevitable madness.
He wouldn’t need his sleeping bag or his camping gear. After all, the trip was going to be a short one, and he preferred the freedom of being unencumbered.
In a cardboard box near the bed were all of Sobaka’s things. The leaders didn’t allow animals in the bunker, so Sobaka always waited on the surface, in a little wooden doghouse that Niall and Silent Nic built for him. The house was barely big enough for the lab and it was rather crooked, fault of the terrain, claimed Niall, but Sobaka always squeezed inside and grinned with glistening eyes and a tail that pleaded for a modicum of wagging space.
A tennis ball was all he took with him. The red one was Sobaka’s favorite.
Thump Thump. Thud.
Coming around the corner, on the carpet of pine and juniper needles laid for him, Niall looked like a demon from the Underworld. His burly frame was entirely black and engulfed in dark red flames. The fire on his face completely hid any recognizable features. With every step, embers flew off and disintegrated before touching the ground. His long sturdy legs marched confidently towards the elevator, stomping just loudly enough to startle some of the dwellers kneeling on the side of the corridor. The flames followed Niall, the sheer speed of his walk leaving them behind, but never extinguishing them. The kneeling dwellers who, by tradition, had their eyes closed, only heard steps and a muted thump that resonated throughout the hall.
Confused murmurs started spreading and, one by one, the dwellers opened their eyes to look at the sinner walking in front of them. It was true, he was almost fully rotten, and he wasn’t covering any of it. He was bouncing a red tennis ball on the floor. It couldn’t be the same Niall, the rot has changed him, he was a respectable man. Niall did not deign to meet anybody’s eyes, not even the people he once considered friends. Maybe the rot had changed him, or maybe being treated like an illness had turned him sour. Who knows?
Two-Step Veil was waiting at the entrance of the elevator. After Old Lucas kicked the bucket, Veil was elected leader for no other reason than his loud voice. Niall stopped in front of him, two steps too close for comfort, enough to make Veil’s obnoxious voice crack. He was scared shitless of the rot, although he would never admit it. He held a box with both hands extended as much as possible, to keep Niall at a distance.
We are gathered here- was more of the speech than Niall had intended to hear. He stepped forward and grabbed the box, making sure to touch Veil’s arm with his rotten hand and linger for a few seconds. Then he turned to his left and advanced into the elevator. The guards stopped their trembling hands and put their guns away. They didn’t have the balls to shoot anyway. Veil inserted his key into the elevator control panel and pushed the button for the surface. Silence accompanied the whirr of the closing doors. Niall had his back to the rabble.
Thump Thump ThumpThumpThumpThumpThump
The ball rolled to the other side of the elevator.
If Sobaka was here, he’d fetch it.
Maybe his stunt was unnecessary. The dwellers didn’t like him, but they did their best to hide their aversion. Maybe he should have just played along and taken part in the rite.
Who could blame them, after all? When Karl went fully rotten, he turned feral and almost killed two of the doctors. Something about the rot made humans much stronger and more resistant, which is a bad thing when said humans lose their minds. That’s the reason for the farewell rite, it was better to have crazy monsters on the outside rather than the inside of the bunker.
Nobody knew what the rot was. All research returned no tangible results. The skin of the rotten was, for all intents and purposes, cinder. Endlessly burning cinder.
The more logical-minded dwellers thought of the rot as a virus. After it spreads throughout the body, it takes control of the mind. The rest of the rabble turned to faith. It’s punishment for our sins! The gods are testing us. It’s the end of time! At some point, the two factions split up, and the bunker ended up being run by cultists.
What did Niall believe in? Now that’s a good question. He believed that his death was close and that being torn between science and religion took too much time and effort. Instead of walking either path, he was bushwhacking down the hill of existence, and it was going well enough.
The box that Niall snatched from Veil was on the floor. It was an unimpressive metal box, old and rusty. It looked like it would contain family photos.
It contained a .45 Colt Single Action, Army, with one loaded round. He was expected to kill himself, to keep other scouts and workers safe. And the whole rite was seen as a celebration. What a fucking joke. The ticket to the Underworld was a bullet in the goddamn brain. The stupid elevator was taking too long.
When the nine minutes had passed, Niall stormed out of the cabin. The elevator let him out at the base of a rocky cliff, in the proximity of a pine forest.
Chop. Chop. Chop.
It was Silent Nic. He was chopping down some wood for the bunker. Niall gave him a nod.
They never spoke, they only ever nodded at each other. The upward nod. They were basically best friends. Silent Nic was the one taking care of Sobaka when Niall was underground, and he loved dogs because he didn’t have to talk to them. He got the nickname when he was caught lying, so the leader chopped his tongue off. Apparently, he was covering for a kid who stole an apple. That’s what the rumors say, at least. Nobody knew his side of the story.
Silent Nic was rotten. Not as much as Niall, but he didn’t have long to live. He saw the gun in Niall’s hand and understood. He gave him a downward nod, and kept eye contact for a few seconds. Then he went back to chopping.
Following the right side of the cliff, a few hundred meters ahead, Niall reached the maybe-not-too-crooked doghouse. It was surprisingly clean. Niall whistled twice and threw the tennis ball in the air, as high as he could. Sobaka loved playing this game. He never went too far from the house and, whenever he heard the whistle, he would run to Niall as if his life depended on it. Sometimes he managed to catch the ball before it fell to the ground.
Niall waited a bit more. A part of him still hoped to see Sobaka running towards him, eyes focused on the ball, no time to put his tongue back in his mouth. He would miss the ball by half a second and would slide towards Niall because the momentum was too strong to break.
But he had run off, Sobaka, and he never came back. Silent Nic still kept his little house clean, just in case.
With a gun in hand and his routine check complete, all Niall needed to do was find a place to die. What a weird sound that thought had. Find a place to die. How does one choose a place? How does one even pull the trigger? He barely knew how to hold a gun. I wonder if Sobaka had the same thoughts. Maybe that’s why he ran off when the rot spread too much. Dogs are smaller than humans, even a lab his size didn’t stand much of a chance.
The clock was still ticking, Niall’s hand made sure to remind him. The rot had covered the whole palm and was now spreading to the four fingers he had left. He only had a few hours to kill himself, but none of the courage required to do so. It was getting dark. If the moon was still around, it wouldn’t be a problem.
Some two hundred years ago, however, night had come. The moon, though, was nowhere to be seen. It just wasn’t there. It didn’t show up. Apparently, that was a big deal. Then. Nobody talked about it now. No one had seen the moon with their own eyes, so it was nothing more than a myth.
With the sun set and nothing to reflect light, the surface was pitch black. Not even Sobaka’s eyes could muster enough light from the stars to distinguish the outline of objects. They could only ever see about half a meter in front of them, thanks to the faint light emitted by the flames. Many of their nights were spent in a tent or under some tree.
Whenever Niall was on the surface, before falling asleep, he would practice the language of dogs. He liked to believe he was succeeding, at least a little bit. But who knows? Maybe Sobaka was just amused by the sounds his best friend was making. What matters is that they had had fun.
This one always made Sobaka tilt his head with a puzzled expression. But nobody, nothing was there to tilt their head this time. Just the gun. And a round in it itching to be shot. He picked up the gun with his slightly still-human hand. It only felt right to use that one. The gun was heavy. Heavier than he imagined. And his shoulder was twitching. The grip was uncomfortable, maybe because of his missing finger.
Sobaka had bitten it off. It was the rot’s fault. It would turn the dog feral sometimes. That was the first time Sobaka had attacked Niall. It took a few months for the pain to subside. Partially because Niall refused to rest. Sobaka was somewhere out there, and he would find him. He never did, and at some point, he gave up. That was also the last time. After coming to his senses, Sobaka had run away, perhaps for fear of hurting his best friend again. Who knows? It’s just a stupid dog.
Niall immediately regretted that thought. Sobaka wasn’t just a stupid dog. He was his best friend, and he must have had his reasons for disappearing.
He put the gun down. There was still some time left. His little finger was now fully cinder, but his other three were still healthy.
A little above the gun, a small yellow light appeared. A little past it, another one popped up. Then two, three, ten more. They were fireflies, and it seemed like they were going somewhere.
Niall stood up and started following them, his steps slow, heavy. He couldn’t see where he was going, but maybe they could. It didn't matter, really. They were pretty, and that was more than enough. He followed their sparkle for a few minutes. Exactly how many, he didn't know.
Eventually, their unlikely group reached a valley swarming with other fireflies. Thousands, tens of thousands. They hadn't been flying aimlessly! The little creatures brought the stars to Earth, and they danced with each other. They disappeared for a few seconds, then reappeared in a different place, with another partner. It was a show of lights organized by nature, and Niall had been invited. What a pretty place to die.
He joined the dancers and started running forward, passing through the cotton plants. Seen from above, he was nothing other than a big firefly with his flames illuminating the cotton around him, he flailed his hands up and to the right, and then down and around. It was a silent musical, all the guests were dancing to the rhythm of the others’ vibrations and gave off their own in return. For several minutes, Niall was a firefly. The protagonist in this impromptu play. For the first time in a while, he wasn’t an illness.
He stumbled upon a clearing, somewhere near the middle of the valley. He sat down, panting. Steam misted off him. Only two fingers were left.
A raindrop hit his arm. He looked up.
Silver raindrops fell across the valley. Stygian rain, they called it. Straight from the river Styx. You could tell because of the silver glow. Some people thought the rain was the cause of the rot. Niall could see why. Whenever a firefly was hit by a raindrop, it would catch fire and brightly burn before disappearing forever.
It started raining harder. The fireflies died. They were picked off one by one. They didn’t try to escape, they just kept dancing, making the most of their final moments.
The sparkling festival was over. After the fireflies, the rain hit the cotton and turned it black. The rot came from the missing moon and rained upon the earth. The cotton was the last line of defense. It would absorb all the rot it could to protect the soil, but it was never enough.
Every drop that hit Niall would fuel his fire. One finger left, and it was quickly rotting.
It was time. Finally he’d be done with it. Was that a good thing? There wasn’t enough time to say. He grasped the gun and pressed it to his temple. He released the safety.
It was pouring. The entire valley was glowing silver. He wasn’t ready, but it didn’t matter.
He cocked the gun.
All the cotton was black. Completely rotten. Torrents poured down the hills, towards the valley. It was a good life.
He put his finger on the trigger. How hard would he have to press?
Niall closed his eyes.
His hand trembled. He opened his eyes and looked to his left
It was Sobaka. He was running through the cotton, growling. His black eyes were focused on Niall, who gasped and held his breath. Amidst the flames you could see the dog's fangs. In less than a second, he closed the gap to Niall and lunged at him.
Sobaka landed behind Niall, the gun in his steaming mouth.
Niall exhaled loudly with a sharp grunt. Sobaka was back. His lost friend was still alive and had stopped Niall from shooting himself. Or had he? Was this real? Had Niall actually shot himself? Was this the underworld?
Sobaka dropped the gun and ran to Niall, his tail wagging and his grin wider than ever. He was jumping left, then right, and keeping a low stance, ready to sprint. His eyes fixated on the red tennis ball. Niall threw it in the air. Sobaka caught it. Niall's hand was now fully rotten.
The two best friends embraced each other and enjoyed the warmth of their flames. Sobaka had been fully rotten for a while, yet he was still here, and he wasn’t feral.
The ground shook. Niall hung onto whatever looked minimally stable and held Sobaka tight. The hills were cracking, and water was pouring out of the cracks. Impossible amounts of water. The water level was rising. It was now as high as the cotton. Niall couldn’t see a safe spot, so he ran away from the water, Sobaka at his side. "Ran" was a bit of an exaggeration. Niall's steps dragged through the water. Sobaka struggled to keep above the streaming, glowing silver torrent.
The earthquakes grew more intense and reduced the hills to rubble. The visible surface was all water, which was still rising. Sobaka had climbed onto Niall’s shoulders, the tennis ball still in his mouth. Niall was mustering all the strength he had left to keep them afloat.
DING. DING. DING.
In front of them, a canoe. At its bow sat a cloaked figure, face obscured, and holding a bell. A bony hand reached down and pulled Niall and Sobaka aboard. Then it resumed rowing. Sobaka dropped the ball and shook off the water in his fur. His tongue hung out, and he was panting, but the dog was relaxed.
None of this is real. It can’t be. Niall thought that he must have fired the gun, and that the bullet was traveling through his brain. Maybe it was sending all kinds of signals and causing hallucinations.
The cloaked figure turned towards the two, he approached Sobaka, crouched, and pointed at Niall.
Is this him?
The figure extended an open hand, the skin and flesh gone.
Sobaka took the ball and placed it in the skeleton’s palm.
This shall suffice. Thank you, little one.
The figure turned away and continued to row. Niall sat in the canoe with Sobaka at his feet, silently eying the events, unable to speak. Not knowing what to say.
You must be confused, human. I am Charon, the ferryman of the Underworld. Your friend over here has been refusing to come with me. He says he couldn’t leave without you because you’d get lost. He must love you a lot.
Charon rowed. Sobaka was licking Niall’s face. Niall felt something soft. Sobaka's fur.
Their rot was gone.
Aleks Ivanov is a Bulgarian undergrad majoring in Computer Science. Aleks is a fan of fiction stories but only recently began writing. Alek’s goal is to become an independent game developer and create a game that will forever carve its place into people's hearts.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.